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FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was our nation’s 32nd President. He is considered one of the greats. He led our country during two of its most difficult challenges: The Great Depression and World War II. He was elected to an unprecedented third term, and then to an even more unprecedented fourth term. But he was president for 12 years, not 16. That’s because he died three months into his fourth term. He is the only president to have served more than two terms. He had three different vice presidents: John Nance Garner during his first and second terms, Henry A. Wallace during his third term and Harry S. Truman for his fourth. He won all four of his presidential elections in landslides. In 1932 he soundly defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover. In 1936 his opponent was Alf Landon, in 1940 Wendell Willkie and in 1944 Thomas E. Dewey.

Today’s book report is on “FDR” by Jean Edward Smith. There are many biographies of FDR to choose from, and I selected this particular title because I wanted a solidly written, one-volume, cradle-to-grave book. I am glad I chose this one. It clocks in at 600-plus pages of text, with an additional 200 pages of notes plus 32 pages of photographs. In my view, this is a well-researched and nicely written biography. Like in any good biography, the author describes not only the subject’s successes and triumphs but also his flaws and failures. Yes, FDR had quite a number of flaws. But he had many more good qualities. Many of these characteristics were endearing, even heroic. Many passages in this book were moving and brought a tear to my eye, and a few other descriptions made me laugh out loud. A minor complaint I had was the author’s frequent use of asterisks and footnotes — lots of them, on almost every page — breaking up the flow of reading. I also thought the coverage toward the end of the events leading up to D-Day, and then the 1944 presidential campaign, was a bit on the skimpy side. But all in all, this book was filled with tons of insight and information. Here is some of what I learned.

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born into a life of wealth and privilege. His status came not only from the paternal side of the family. His mother, Sara Delano, came from a wealthy family herself. Sara was what would be called today a helicopter parent. Her influence on her son was immeasurable. She saw that Franklin received an excellent education, first at home with tutors and later at boarding school. By the time he was 9 years old Franklin knew French and German. The family traveled extensively in Europe. He attended Harvard and graduated after three years, but he stayed on campus a fourth year as editor of the student newspaper, the Crimson.

Franklin was a distant cousin of both Theodore Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Franklin was from the Hyde Park (Hudson River) branch of the family, and Theodore and Eleanor were from the Oyster Bay (Long Island) branch. Theodore was Eleanor’s uncle. Eleanor’s father, Elliott (Theodore’s brother), died of alcoholism when Eleanor was a girl. Like her uncle and cousin, Eleanor also lived a life of privilege. She attended an all-girls boarding school in England that was taught entirely in French. Theodore was president when Franklin and Eleanor got married, and Theodore attended their wedding in Manhattan and gave Eleanor away. Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor and Franklin had six children, a daughter and five sons. One of the sons died in infancy. All of their children ended up getting married and divorced multiple times, and several of the sons embarrassed their father while he was president with various minor scandals. All of FDR’s sons served in World War II. At one point early in their marriage, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair. The other woman was Lucy Mercer, and Eleanor found a packet of love letters they had exchanged. FDR broke off the affair. Eleanor and Franklin remained married, but from that point on they led separate lives, had separate groups of friends and had separate interests. In the White House, according to the book, FDR and Eleanor dined apart each night, in separate dining rooms, with different groups of people.

Eleanor became active in various social and philanthropic causes, as well as with various women’s organizations. In these circles she met and befriended two women, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, who lived together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. FDR built them a “shack,” which was actually a large mansion, called Val-Kill, located on the Hyde park property in New York State, where the women all lived together. The author of “FDR” does not delve too deeply into Eleanor’s relationships with other women or speculate on the scope of their intimacy. Eleanor was also close with various men in her life. According to the book, Eleanor had a male bodyguard, Earl Miller, a New York State Police officer, who became a companion and friend, and who might also have been more than a friend.

FDR got his start in politics as a State Senator. Then, following in cousin Theodore’s footsteps, he became assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920 FDR ran for vice president as the running mate of James Cox. They lost to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. A year later, FDR had a life-changing event. He contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. He spent several years convalescing, first aboard houseboats in Florida and later in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he purchased a large property and turned it into a home for polio survivors. He faced his physical disability with courage, never asking for or seeking sympathy. He devised a strategy for appearances in public in which he would walk with crutches and braces while holding on to a son or a military aide. Always, even though he might have been in excruciating pain, he was smiling.

In 1928 FDR ran for governor of New York and won, again following in TR’s footsteps, and then in 1932 he ran for President and won. During this time, becoming governor of New York was seen as a stepping-stone to the White House. FDR was the fourth governor of New York to become president. Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland and TR were the others.

When FDR took office in 1933 the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis it had ever known. FDR acted quickly and decisively, first to stabilize the nation’s banks, and then to establish a number of government agencies and programs designed to put people back to work. He called this agenda the New Deal, and in his first 100 days he got Congress to pass enormous amounts of legislation. Some of these programs and agencies were temporary, while many others have survived to this day. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was created to use federal funds to build dams, bridges and schools. There was also the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which hired young men to plant trees. And later there was the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which also employed many people and funded many endeavors, including arts projects. FDR also signed into law legislation that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), which for the first time protected depositors from bank failures; the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to regulate the stock market; and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which built dams and power stations and controlled flooding. He brought electricity to rural communities. He initiated legislation for unemployment insurance, and he signed the Social Security Act into law.

All of this was a departure from his three immediate predecessors, who thought that the Washington had no business enacting such programs. But FDR was different. He believed that the full force of the federal government should be brought to bear to provide for the general welfare, and to improve the lives of all citizens. Perhaps the biggest departure from his predecessors, however, was FDR’s sincere confidence that things would get better, that everything was going to be OK. Unlike Hoover, who was a pessimist, FDR was an optimist. It was in his first inaugural address that he uttered the immortal phrase that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself,” which was a message the American people needed to hear at the time.

The next huge event to confront FDR and the nation was the outbreak of World War II. Hitler was on a murderous rampage, and he had already invaded France and was threatening Britain. Yet the American public did not want to go to war. FDR helped Britain with desperately needed war materiel, under a policy that he devised called Lend-Lease. He also got Congress to enact a military draft. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR gave his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech to an emergency joint session of Congress, and he called for massive numbers of planes, tanks and ammunition to be manufactured in our nation’s factories. Early in the war, FDR devised a secret plan that allowed the United States to drop bombs on Tokyo. It was a crazy idea, but it worked. And while it had little military effect on the conflict at the time, it achieved a much-needed morale boost for the Americans. Again, FDR’s confidence and optimism came into play.

During the war FDR met many times with Churchill, and a few other times with Churchill and Stalin. According to the book, FDR did not micromanage the war effort. He set broad goals and left it to his generals to plan and execute the objectives. For D-Day, according to the book, FDR merely set the date and named Eisenhower commander, and he let his military leader conduct Operation Overlord, as it was code-named.

FDR also made several huge mistakes, and he had plenty of personal flaws. According to the book, he had been arrogant as a state senator and rubbed many people the wrong way. As president, he signed no civil rights legislation. The author says that FDR was unable to act on civil rights because he needed to keep southern racist Democrats in his fold, because he needed their support for his New Deal and war initiatives. Also, tragically, FDR went along with a plan during World War II to send Japanese Americans to concentration camps. During his second term FDR also interfered, unwisely, in various Democratic Party primary races and was embarrassed. Also during his second term he cut federal spending, which led to the “Roosevelt Recession,” which was basically a recession within the depression.

Perhaps FDR’s most famous blunder was his ill-fated scheme to pack the Supreme Court. This happened during his second term, after the court had struck down several of his New Deal programs as unconstitutional. FDR failed in his plan and was bruised politically. According to the book, the reason so much of the legislation had been struck down was that it had been poorly written or too hastily drafted.

Nevertheless, despite FDR’s shortcomings, his tenure in office includes momentous achievement. By the end of 1944 the depression was over, the Allies had invaded France and the tide of the war had turned and the end was in sight. FDR sought and won a fourth term, but his health had deteriorated markedly. He was in Warm Springs when he died in April 1945. Lucy Mercer, not Eleanor, was with him.

Here are a few more facts about FDR:

  • He was lifelong stamp collector.
  • He also collected stuffed birds.
  • He had a beloved dog, Fala.
  • He was a natural politician who knew how to cultivate relationships with key players in and out of government. He used flattery, cajoling and various other means to get what he wanted.
  • In 1932 FDR flew from Albany to Chicago to accept the Democratic Presidential nomination at the convention in person. The plane had to stop twice on the way for fuel.
  • In all his years as president, FDR had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. In some sessions the majorities were substantial, at other times narrow.
  • He held “Fireside Chats,” broadcast to the American people via radio. He started the broadcasts when he was governor of New York.
  • He had good relations with the press, and he held twice weekly press conferences.
  • As a precursor to full repeal of Prohibition, FDR signed federal legislation that legalized beer.
  • Every afternoon FDR observed “children’s hour,” in which he would mix drinks for himself and whoever he happened to be hosting that day.
  • When FDR was governor of New York, he named a woman, Frances Perkins, to his cabinet. When he became president, he named Perkins Labor Secretary. She was the first woman cabinet secretary.
  • FDR also had two female assistants, one of whom, Missy, was at his side constantly. When Missy had a stroke, FDR wrote her into his will, but she died first.
  • Eleanor was considered a political liability because she advocated for women’s equality and spoke out for civil rights for blacks.
  • FDR had a half-brother, James, who was many years older.
  • FDR was on a trip to Europe in 1901 with is mother when they received word that President McKinley had been assassinated and their cousin Theodore had become president.
  • When FDR was president-elect, a gunman tried to assassinate FDR when he was on a trip to Miami. FDR was not hit, but several bystanders were, as was the mayor of Chicago, who died.
  • He could quote British poetry from memory, a talent that endeared him to Churchill.
  • He drew a sketch for the design of what would become the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
  • According to the book, FDR was always seen in public standing with his braces locked, or seated in an open car. Only two pictures are known to exist showing FDR in a wheelchair.
  • The 22nd amendment, which limits a president to two terms, came into effect after FDR.

Whew! There is certainly a lot to consider about FDR. In my view, he was indeed one of our nation’s best presidents. I consider him to be the leader our country needed at the time, not only to help us get out of the depression but also to get us through the war. He left many lasting legacies, including Social Security, the FDIC, unemployment insurance, rural electricity, flooding protection — and the GI Bill, which FDR also signed, allowing millions of returning American servicemen to get an education and improve their lives and increase the nation’s standard of living. Plus of course, there’s the United Nations, which FDR laid the foundation for and is yet another organization that endures to this day.

What strikes me most, though, is that FDR did not have to do any of this. He was born rich enough that he could have spent his entire life doing essentially nothing. And then, after being stricken with polio, he could have retired from public life altogether. Nobody would have faulted him had he chosen to fade away. He had several comfortable homes to choose from. But there was something about FDR that made him genuinely want to help others, and to help his country.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.

Herbert Hoover

He tried so hard to pull our country out of the worst economic disaster it ever experienced before or since, what would become known as the Great Depression. Even before the Wall Street crash of October 1929, which came just months after his inauguration, Herbert Hoover knew the stock market was a speculative bubble. He had taken steps to address this, but few would listen. After the crash he immediately called captains of industry to the White House and got them to promise not to implement massive layoffs or pay cuts. He also persuaded union leaders to agree not to stage any labor protests or strikes during this time of crisis. His efforts worked for a while, but soon it became evident that this was more than just a cyclical recession.

It was really a problem with worldwide dimensions. It was brought about by factors that included a massive global trade imbalance, poor international monetary policy, and how governments were maintaining or not maintaining a gold standard. It was all complicated by the massive debts and reparations owed after the war in Europe. The depression was much worse overseas, and in Germany the government was about to collapse. Here at home, Hoover got Congress to agree to a moratorium on German debt and reparations payments. He also called for private relief through organizations like the Red Cross. And he encouraged state and local governments to implement local infrastructure projects to help spur employment.

But when Britain abandoned the gold standard it set off another round of misery here, causing massive bank failures. Hoover gathered the nation’s top banking executives to Washington to establish what would become the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was an effort designed to keep credit flowing and banks liquid. Finally, thinking that the economy was soon to improve, Hoover set out to raise taxes and cut spending in an effort to balance the federal budget and thus demonstrate that the government was on solid footing.

When Hoover implemented these measures, the economy would perk up for a few months at a time, only to fall off again. There seemed to be no end in sight to the misery. It’s therefore no surprise that Hoover became a one-term president. In the election of 1932, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Hoover decisively, winning 472 electoral votes vs. 59 for Hoover, and getting 57.4 percent of the popular vote to Hoover’s 39.7 percent.

 

Today’s book report is on “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” by Kenneth Whyte. It’s a fitting title for someone who was active in public life not only during the Great Depression, but also during both World War I and World War II, and the start of the Cold War. At more than 600 pages with thoughtful insight and analysis, I found this book a pleasure to read. It’s certainly one of the best presidential biographies I have yet encountered. I learned so much, not only about Hoover but also about the momentous times in which he lived.

Elected to our nation’s highest office in 1928, Herbert Hoover was our nation’s 31st president. He was a Republican who had never before held elective office. But he was no stranger to the federal government, having served in three previous administrations.

A native of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi. He was also the first Quaker to be elected president. He was orphaned when he was just 9 years old and was sent to live with relatives in Oregon. His early childhood trauma likely affected his emotional development, leading to lifelong social awkwardness and an inability to connect with others on a human level. He didn’t like “glad handing” or kissing babies as so many other politicians do. He was among the first students to attend Stanford University, where he studied engineering. After college he got a lucrative job working for a British mining company, and he traveled to Australia and China to develop mines. He was really good at this, and he made tons of money for the company and for himself. He eventually settled in London, where he started his own firm.

In business Hoover had developed immense organizational and managerial abilities, and when war broke out in Europe he put these talents to use, first by helping Americans stranded abroad get home safely, and then later by organizing massive humanitarian relief for the people of Belgium, who were starving. After the war, Hoover joined President Woodrow Wilson’s delegation to the Paris peace talks and later organized more humanitarian relief, this time for all of Europe. President Warren G. Harding, who was elected in 1920, gave Hoover a cabinet post — Secretary of Commerce — and he stayed on in that post under Calvin Coolidge after Harding died in office.

Hoover was an excellent commerce secretary. In an effort to streamline business activity and eliminate waste, he gathered and published immense amounts of data and called for improvements to the nation’s infrastructure as well as preservation of natural resources. He helped get the Radio Act of 1927 signed into law under Coolidge, which regulated and helped organize the nation’s airwaves. Importantly, Hoover also set out to standardize construction materials and consumer products, everything from screws to bricks to automobile tires and even baby bottles. According to the book, Hoover’s standardization of home building materials reduced the price of a new house by a third, making home ownership more achievable for many Americans.

These initiatives all fit in with Hoover’s worldview, that government should help foster business growth and stability without intervening directly. In other words Hoover was not a laissez faire capitalist, nor could be he called a socialist. He was rather a champion of a so-called “third alternative.”

When a great flood of the Mississippi River caused widespread devastation in 1927, Hoover performed the duties of what a good FEMA director would do today, organizing relief efforts and saving many lives and livelihoods. He relied in large part on private donations.

In 1928, after Coolidge declined to seek another presidential term, Hoover received the Republican Party nomination. He won in a landslide, receiving 444 electoral votes to 87 for the Democratic nominee, Al Smith of New York. The popular vote in 1928 was 58.3 percent for Hoover and 40.8 percent for Smith.

When Hoover began his term of office the first thing he did was get in a huge fight with Congress — over tariffs! The Republicans controlled both houses, but Hoover lacked the political savvy and the inside connections needed to get legislation through. In the midterm elections of 1930, the Democrats gained seats in the House but the Republicans maintained control. Then late in Hoover’s term several Republican representatives died, causing power in the House to flip to the Democrats. Interestingly, when this happened Hoover was able to get legislation passed more easily.

Hoover was president during the Prohibition era. Early in his presidency Hoover convened a commission to study the issue, but when it recommended that the Volstead Act, which was the federal government’s enforcement mechanism against booze, be revised, and Prohibition itself be revisited, Hoover did not act. To his credit, Hoover had wisely called Prohibition an “experiment” in the 1928 campaign, but at heart Hoover was more of a “dry.” In the election of 1932 the Democratic Party platform called for outright repeal of the 18th Amendment, and FDR campaigned on repeal. This might have contributed to FDR’s lopsided victory over Hoover.

As a former president, Hoover lived for many more decades and continued to serve his country. He chaired two Hoover Commissions, one under President Truman and one under President Eisenhower, to help eliminate redundancies in the administrative branch and to help make the federal government run more efficiently.

After leaving office Hoover lived for a time in a large house in California, but he eventually moved to New York City, living in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He died in 1964 at age 90, outliving both FDR and JFK.

Also after his presidency, Hoover spoke out publicly and privately against FDR. In my view, some of Hoover’s criticism of his successor was sour grapes, but in other respects it was warranted. Hoover thought that FDR should not have let the United States recognize the Soviet Union, and he was infuriated that so many people ended up living under an iron fist after the second world war. Hoover also was troubled by the New Deal, thinking that the federal government was getting too big and interfering too much in industry. According to the book, the elder statesman Hoover became the spiritual godfather of the modern conservative movement, influencing thinkers such as William F. Buckley Jr.

Nevertheless, after the Depression Hoover was branded a failure, and that sentiment lasted for many generations. This may or may not have been fair. I tend to think that it was unfair. In 1932 and in his subsequent presidential campaigns, FDR and his Democratic Party had been especially nasty toward Hoover. As part of a Democratic Party smear campaign, shantytowns during the depression were dubbed Hoovervilles — a term that continued to be used even during FDR’s many years of being president during the Depression.

This blaming the Depression on Hoover even carried over into popular culture. For example, the Broadway musical “Annie” features a song called “Thank you Herbert Hoover,” which is a sarcastic thank you. And in the popular song “I’m Still Here” by Sondheim, from the show “Follies,” a woman of a certain age reflects on her life, remembering living through the Depression and many other ups and downs. “I lived through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, that was fun and a half,” she sings. “When you’ve lived through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, everything else is a laugh.”

It must have been difficult to be Herbert Hoover, especially during the FDR years. He was unpopular, yet, according to the book, when everyday Americans encountered him they wanted to shake his hand. Sadly, Hoover was not emotionally capable of reciprocating these affections.

Here are some additional facts about Herbert Hoover:

  • He married Lou Henry, and they had two sons, Herbert Jr. and Allan. Lou Hoover was an extraordinary woman in her own right. She had been a tomboy. In a picture included in the book, she resembles Annie Oakley! She rode horses and drove cars. She even drove coast to coast by automobile through the Rocky Mountains, at a time when there were few paved roads. The trip took a month. She preceded her husband in death by many years.
  • Speaking of the song mentioned above, Herbert Hoover was not related to longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
  • Those who are old enough might also recall Hoover being affectionately recalled in “Those Were the Days,” the theme song for the long-running TV show “All in the Family.”
  • He had a brother and a sister.
  • He was a hard worker.
  • He smoked lots and lots of cigars.
  • He was bad at spelling.
  • He had a habit of jangling coins in his pocket.
  • He enjoyed fishing in the Florida Keys, always while wearing a jacket and tie!
  • Also not related to longtime White House usher Ike Hoover.
  • Also, there was no connection to the vacuum cleaner.
  • But the Hoover Dam, however, is named after the 31st President.
  • He founded the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
  • He also invented a game, called Hooverball, in which he would throw a medicine ball with colleagues on White House grounds, for exercise.
  • He was in China during the Boxer Rebellion.
  • He was not implicated in any of the scandals that befell the Harding administration.
  • He was uncomfortable with ceremonial duties, and he was not good at face-to-face interactions with the general public, or at working crowds.
  • He wrote many books, the most notable of which included “The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson,” about the Paris peace conference after World War I.

And that’s Herbert Hoover. Before reading Whyte’s excellent biography, I knew almost nothing about the man. I found his life to be absolutely fascinating. As the author pointed out, Herbert Hoover knew every president from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon and served under five of them, both Democratic and Republican, in addition to his own term in the White House.

Even more importantly, the author estimates that during his lifetime Hoover saved 100 million lives, through his humanitarian work during and after World War I and later after the Mississippi flood of 1927. That’s something to admire. I am so glad I took the time to learn more about this important American and his many achievements.

Herbert Hoover (Library of Congress photo)

 

The electoral college results in 1928 show Hoover winning in a landslide over Smith.

 

The electoral college results in 1932 show Hoover defeated in a landslide by FDR.

 

Calvin Coolidge

Imagine living in an era in which there is rampant speculation in the stock market, which keeps going up and up. There is almost no government regulation, which allows “stockjobbers” to concoct various get-rich-quick schemes, while investors are allowed to place large trades on margin. The economy seems to be doing well, yet interest rates are being lowered and tariffs are being increased, causing an imbalance in global trade. In just four years, there have been three rounds of massive tax cuts. The rich keep getting richer, and everyone else — well, they get to reap the benefits of trickle-down economics. Among the most vulnerable are the nation’s farmers, who are saddled with debt while crop prices fluctuate wildly. But hey, look at that stock market! It keeps going up and up and up! What could possibly go wrong?

Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, was the 30th President of the United States, serving through much of what is now known as the Roaring Twenties. One of his nicknames was “Silent Cal,” because he was sort of a do-nothing president who didn’t seem to care for much more than keeping up appearances. He was not an activist leader who roused people to action. He is what would be called today a small-government conservative. When the Mississippi River flooded in 1927, causing widespread devastation and suffering, the Coolidge administration did almost nothing to help. Coolidge occasionally spoke out in favor of civil rights, but he did not do anything heroic. To his credit, he is not known to have appointed any overt racists to positions of power.

In 1928 Coolidge attended a Pan-American conference in Cuba, where he encountered much resentment toward the United States over intervention in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He attempted to normalize relations with Mexico, which was undergoing revolution and much political upheaval. Coolidge approved the Dawes Plan, which was designed to defuse the German debt crisis that had lingered after World War I. In coming years Germany would fall into an economic tailspin of its own, with devastating consequences for the entire world.

Coolidge, a lawyer, got his start in local politics in Massachusetts in 1909, when he was elected mayor of Northampton. He then became lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Massachusetts. Shortly after he became governor, the police officers in Boston went on strike and Coolidge fired them all. This action brought Coolidge to national prominence as an enforcer of law and order and as one who would stand up against communism. The Bolshevik revolution had just taken place in Russia, and there was already a “red scare” in the United States!

Coolidge’s newly minted national reputation landed him on the Republican ticket in the election of 1920, as Warren G. Harding’s running mate, and he became president in 1923 when Harding died in office. Coolidge was elected to a full term in his own right in 1924, with 54 percent of the popular vote. He declared that he did not think anyone should serve more than two terms as president and declined to seek re-election in 1928. Just six months after he left office in 1929, with Republican successor Herbert Hoover in the White House, the economy began to unravel, ushering in the worst economic crisis our nation had ever experienced. Coolidge died in 1933 at age 60.

Here are some additional facts about Calvin Coolidge:

  • He was born in Vermont.
  • He was religious.
  • He married Grace Goodhue and they had two sons, John and Calvin Jr., the younger of whom died while Coolidge was in office, after getting a blister while playing tennis on White House grounds. The blister became infected, and antibiotics had not yet been developed for treatment of infections.
  • Coolidge mastered the art of the photo opp, appearing frequently in newspapers, magazines and newsreels. Edward Bernays, who would become known as the “father of public relations,” was an advisor, as was Bruce Fairchild Barton, an advertising executive.
  • Coolidge was the first president to appear talking on film.
  • During the Coolidge presidency Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic, returning home and hailed as a hero.
  • With radio broadcasting an emerging technology, Coolidge signed legislation regulating the nation’s airwaves.
  • As president, Coolidge also signed anti-immigration legislation into law.
  • In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Coolidge’s economic philosophy (if you could even call it that) would be discredited for many decades, only to be resurrected by Ronald Reagan, who admired Coolidge and hung up his portrait in the White House.

Today’s book report is on “Calvin Coolidge” by David Greenberg, another in the American Presidents series. This was a quick, concise read. I would have preferred a longer book, but I was not able to find a better one. After reading the introduction to the best-selling biography by Amity Shlaes, I had to put it down because it was so over-the-top laudatory (in my view) that I wanted to barf.

Despite the short length of the Greenberg biography, I did find that it covered the bases quite well. I was particularly impressed with Greenberg’s thoughtful analysis at the end, in which he points out the various economic warning signs that existed during Coolidge’s administration. But he also concedes, quite fairly, that nobody back then, not even the president, could have predicted the future.

Warren G. Harding

Our nation’s 29th President was Warren G. Harding, a Republican. He was the immediate successor to Woodrow Wilson. Harding died in office, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge succeeded him. A number of scandals engulfed Harding’s presidency, most of which did not come to light until after his death. One of the scandals involved the Veterans Bureau, but the most notorious came to be known as the Teapot Dome affair.

John Dean biogaphy of Warren G. HardingTeapot Dome was an oil well in Wyoming. Harding’s Interior Secretary, Albert B. Fall, was convicted of accepting bribes and ultimately served a year behind bars. Fall became the first cabinet secretary to do time after being convicted of wrongdoing. As a result of the Teapot Dome scandal, a number of Congressional oversight norms were established, including the ability of House and Senate committees to issue subpoenas compelling members of an administration to testify, and the ability of Congress to have access to any person’s tax returns. It should be noted that these oversight functions remained in place for the better part of a century — until the current administration began to openly defy them. It remains to be seen whether the courts will ultimately uphold these oversight functions of Congress or defer to the executive branch.

Anyway, let’s go back to the 1920s for a moment, and to the Harding presidency. Warren G. Harding was among a long line of presidents to come from Ohio. Before Harding got started in politics, he was a successful editor and publisher who owned his own newspaper, The Marion Star. He served as a state Senator in Ohio and later as lieutenant governor. In 1910 he ran for Governor of Ohio but lost. In 1914 he was elected to the United States Senate, where he served throughout World War I while Wilson was president. In 1920 he was elected President, defeating the Democratic candidate James M. Cox, also of Ohio. Franklin D. Roosevelt was Cox’s running mate!

Warren G. Harding teapot dome
Warren G. Harding portrait by Harris & Ewing (public domain)

 

As president, Harding kept the United States out of the League of Nations and negotiated separate postwar peace treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary. He presided over a global disarmament conference in Washington, which at the time meant building fewer warships. On the domestic front, Harding sought lower taxes, higher tariffs, and budget cuts. He vetoed a cash bonus to World War I veterans because he felt it would balloon the federal budget deficit. There was also widespread labor unrest during this era. Harding largely sided with management over labor, although the eight-hour workday became standard under his watch.

On civil rights, Harding was less than heroic. He had been elected with the support of many blacks in the South and as president he spoke out against lynchings, but beyond that he did not do much. He signed legislation that imposed quota restrictions on immigration. Harding pardoned about two dozen political prisoners, including Eugene V. Debs, a former Socialist candidate for President whom Wilson had thrown in jail for speaking out against the war.

Harding was on a trip to the West Coast in 1923 when he died of a heart attack in a hotel room in San Francisco. At the time of his death, Harding was popular. His body was returned to Washington, where he received a large funeral. He was buried in an elaborate tomb in Ohio.

Here are some additional details about Harding:

  • He was the sixth president to die in office and the third to die of natural causes. Three others had previously been assassinated.
  • The G is for Gamaliel.
  • Some of Harding’s political opponents spread rumors that he was black.
  • He had at least one extramarital affair, and after his death a woman wrote a book in which she claimed to be Harding’s illegitimate daughter.
  • Harding is the first president elected in an election in which women were allowed to vote.
  • Harding appointed former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the United States.
  • At the 1912 Republican national convention, Harding delivered the nominating speech for Taft.
  • Harding was the first sitting U.S. Senator to be elected President. Kennedy and Obama were the only others to be elected to the presidency while serving as Senators.
  • Future president Herbert Hoover was Harding’s Commerce Secretary.
  • Harding gave long-winded speeches with complex language that was heavy on alliteration. He self-deprecatingly referred to this speaking style as “bloviating.”
  • Harding was president when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1922.

According to John W. Dean, author of the biography “Warren G. Harding,” part of the American Presidents series, Harding was unfairly tarnished after his death for scandals that he was not responsible for. Yes, this is the same John W. Dean who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, the guy who famously told the Watergate committee that he had told his former boss that there was “a cancer growing on the presidency.” I am open to Dean’s interpretation, but I feel he did not make a very strong case.

If I were to give Dean’s book a letter grade, I would give it a C-minus. In my view, if Dean wants to rehabilitate Harding’s image, he needs to make a stronger argument. A skimming of the bibliography lists mostly previously published biographies and very few references to original source material. Dean also uses imprecise language. For example, Dean writes that in 1919 President Wilson “lay in a coma, partially paralyzed.” While Wilson had indeed been incapacitated while still in office, there is no evidence that he was ever in a coma, and if he had been in a coma he would have been completely paralyzed, not partially.

Further, Dean speculates that Harding was largely blameless not only for the Teapot Dome but also for a Veterans Bureau scandal, but he overlooks the fact that Harding allowed the perpetrator of that outrage, Charles R. Forbes, to flee to Europe before he could be held accountable. Forbes later returned to the United States, where he was convicted of conspiracy and sent to prison! Toward the end of the book, Dean also speculates that Harding probably did not father the illegitimate child, but according to the Wikipedia page for Harding, DNA testing later confirmed that he had. Or as Maury would have said to the president: “You ARE the father!”

Taft Harding and Lincoln
Chief Justice William Howard Taft, President Warren G. Harding and Robert Todd Lincoln, at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 1922. (National Photo Company, public domain)

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson was our nation’s 28th president. He was in office through all of World War I. He devoted the final years of his presidency — and his life, essentially — to fight for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, which included the establishment of his League of Nations, a global body that Wilson hoped would prevent future war. Wilson’s fight for the treaty and U.S. entry into the League would ultimately prove to be unsuccessful.

Woodrow Wilson book review
The photo on the book cover is of Wilson returning from the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. (Photo: Associated Press, public domain)

His life story is told in “Wilson,” a biography by A. Scott Berg. (Thanks to cousin Traveler Blue for the gift!) At nearly 750 pages of text it’s quite a lot to get through. But it was an easy read. Photographs from the era enhanced the narrative. I enjoyed Berg’s writing style, and I appreciated that he expounded not only upon the subject’s many successes but also his many contradictions as a person and shortcomings as a politician. If there is one gripe I have about Berg’s “Wilson,” it’s that the author spent little time explaining how this wartime president interacted with the military during the war itself.

As the author explains, Wilson was a Southerner by birth and by disposition. He was born in Virginia, the son of a Presbyterian minister who moved the family frequently from congregation to congregation. Wilson grew up in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. He worked as a college professor and later became president of Princeton University. In 1910 New Jersey’s Democratic Party bosses got Wilson to run for governor, thinking he would be their puppet. After winning the governors race, Wilson defied the party bosses by passing a number of reforms aimed at rooting out government corruption. Against long odds he also pushed through a bold progressive agenda for the state that included labor protections and educational reform. But this would all prove to be just a brief springboard to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912.

This was the election in which Theodore Roosevelt challenged his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, for the GOP nomination and when he failed ran as a third party “Bull Moose” candidate. TR turned out to be a spoiler for the Republicans. Despite receiving less than 42 percent of the popular vote, Wilson won the election in an electoral-college landslide. He became the first southerner elected president since before the Civil War.

Woodrow Wilson Fred MIchmershuizen
Wilson giving his first State of the Union address, the first such address since 1801. (Photo: Library of Congress, public domain)

 

As president, Wilson’s domestic agenda was sweeping and progressive. It included a reduction of high tariffs, a personal income tax on the rich, an estate tax, antitrust legislation, labor protections, and farm subsidies. Wilson also signed into law legislation establishing the Federal Reserve. But Wilson’s record on civil rights for blacks was poor. He packed his Cabinet with southerners who sympathized with the Confederacy of old, and when these department heads decided to segregate the federal work force, Wilson went along with it. Wilson also allowed a screening of D.W. Griffith’s racist film “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, to take place in the White House.

During Wilson’s first term, World War I broke out in Europe. Wilson managed to keep the United States neutral for several years, despite Germany’s sinking of a number of ships carrying American passengers, including most famously the Lusitania.

In the election of 1916, Wilson faced off against Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, narrowly defeating him by a handful of electoral-college votes. The popular vote was 49 percent for Wilson and 46 percent for his republican opponent. The outcome was in dispute for about a week after election day.

Wilson won re-election in 1916 under the slogan “He kept us out of war,” but by early the next year the Germans had escalated their attacks on transatlantic shipping. In April 1917 Wilson went to Congress and asked for a war declaration, stating famously, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” It would take the United States many months to mobilize for war, but when the Americans did finally enter the war it was in a big way. A draft was established, bringing close to 3 million men into the military! Black soldiers were drafted as well as whites, but they were segregated into different units for training and combat. Under the command of General Pershing, the United States turned the tide of the war in Europe, and by the end of 1918 an armistice was declared. But not before untold millions of soldiers had died, including more than 100,000 Americans. Countless millions more died in a deadly global influenza epidemic.

Woodrow Wilson book review
Official presidential portrait of Woodrow Wilson, 1913. (Photo: Frank Graham Cootes, public domain)

 

After the war Wilson traveled overseas to negotiate the peace treaty. Before talks started, he was welcomed by masses of people lining the streets to catch a glimpse of him. In Paris, he negotiated personally with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and others, for what would become the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson had brought with him as the basis for negotiations his “Fourteen Points,” which was his vision of how the world should be organized. The final and most important of these points was Wilson’s desire to form a League of Nations, which he got the others to agree to, a bit reluctantly. The French and British were more interested in punishing and humiliating the Germans for the war and wanted harsh remedies, including making the Germans pay reparations. Wilson wanted a more balanced approach, but having expended so much of his own political capital on getting them to agree to the League, he ultimately went with the plan. They also re-drew the map of the world, changing boundaries of many countries and creating new nations, mostly out of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Wilson returned to the United States with the Treaty of Versailles — which included the League of Nations — the Republicans in the Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, refused to ratify it. They might have approved a modified version had Wilson agreed to let them make changes, but instead Wilson went on a tour of the country, in which he intended to take his case directly to the American people. This would prove to be futile. He barnstormed via train, in which he gave dozens of speeches, mainly in the Western states. But on this trip his health deteriorated, and after a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, in September 1919, he suffered a complete physical breakdown. He was brought back to the White House, where several days later he had a debilitating stroke that left half his body paralyzed. He remained incapacitated for the rest of his presidency. Congress and the general public were not informed about the true extent of his condition.

Here are some additional facts about Wilson and his presidency:

  • Wilson was the first two-term Democrat since Andrew Jackson.
  • He went by Tommy Wilson until adulthood, when he decided Woodrow sounded more academic.
  • He had three daughters, one of whom was married in the White House. Another daughter married his Treasury Secretary!
  • Wilson is the first president to hold White House press conferences, in which assembled reporters could ask questions on any topic, on the record.
  • He was also the first president since John Adams to present his State of the Union address in person, to a joint session of Congress. In addition to his annual message, Wilson also addressed Congress in person dozens of other times, on a wide range of topics.
  • Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died during his first term. He remarried shortly thereafter, to Edith Bolling Galt, a widow whose first husband had died and left her a jewelry store.
  • After Wilson’s debilitating stroke, Edith ran interference for her husband and liaised on his behalf with members of his Cabinet. Some have even gone so far as to call Edith our nation’s first woman president!
  • His first wide, Ellen, was a talented impressionist painter.
  • Wilson also had an “other woman” in his life — Mrs. Peck — with whom Wilson had some sort of illicit relationship earlier in his life. This never turned into a full-fledged scandal, in part because Teddy Roosevelt thought exposing it might actually help Wilson in the election of 1912.
  • Wilson is the only president with a PhD.
  • He authored a number of books on government and political science.
  • He was an excellent orator. According to the author, he wrote all of his own speeches, often using shorthand for early drafts.
  • Physically, he was tall and slender.
  • He played golf almost every day, on the advice of his physician, Dr. Grayson.
  • He also went on lots of automobile rides.
  • He was stubborn, and he tended to carry grudges. If someone crossed him, he would often eliminate that person from his life forever.
  • Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, in recognition for his peace-making efforts after the war.

Also during Wilson’s presidency, FOUR amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified:

  • The 16th Amendment allowed Congress to impose income taxes.
  • The 17th Amendment established direct election of U.S. Senators by popular vote. Before this time, legislatures of each state selected their Senators.
  • The 18th Amendment was the Prohibition amendment. Congress passed the Volstead Act to enforce Prohibition, but Wilson vetoed it and Congress overrode the veto. The federal ban on alcohol thus began in January 1920.
  • The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. At first Wilson was opposed to the amendment, but during his presidency he “evolved” on the issue. The 1920 presidential election thus became the first in which women could vote in every state.

Wilson left office in 1921, but he and his wife remained in the nation’s capital. He opened a law office with a partner but never had any paying clients. One of his last public appearances was to attend the funeral of his successor, Warren G. Harding. Wilson died in 1924 and was entombed in Washington National Cathedral.

Taft: President and Chief Justice

William Howard Taft, our country’s 27th President and its 10th Chief Justice, believed in the Constitution and its system of checks and balances. He is most often remembered for being fat, which is a shame because his advocacy for the judicial branch of government was his real legacy. Taft is also responsible for a number of long-lasting physical changes to our nation’s capital, including the construction of the Supreme Court Building (more on that in a moment).

William Howard Taft book reviewBefore he became President, Taft served as a state judge in his home state of Ohio, as Solicitor General of the United States, and as a federal judge. In 1900 President William McKinley persuaded Taft to step down from the bench to oversee the United States occupation of the Philippines, where he became civil governor a year later. After McKinley was assassinated, Taft continued to serve in the Philippines under President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904 Roosevelt named Taft Secretary of War. Taft visited Panama during the construction of the canal and later served as temporary provisional governor of Cuba.

In 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt declined to seek another term, Taft received the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and — with TR’s full blessing and support — he went on to defeat the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, by a wide margin. As President, Taft focused on revising the nation’s complicated system of tariffs and breaking up large trusts. He also dealt with foreign policy crises with Mexico, Cuba, Santo Domingo and Nicaragua.

But Taft’s conduct in office was not to the liking of Theodore Roosevelt, whose criticism of his successor became more and more vituperative. In an unprecedented move, Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. When TR lost the nomination, he claimed that the system was rigged and formed a third political party, which became known as the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt ran against both Taft and the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, who would go on to win the presidency in an electoral college landslide despite capturing only 41.8 percent of the popular vote. Roosevelt got 27.4 percent and Taft 23.2 percent. After leaving the Presidency, Taft taught law at Yale and authored several books. During World War I he served as co-chairman of the National War Labor Board.

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the United States, where he would serve for nine years. As Chief Justice Taft sought consensus, and he wrote and participated in many important decisions. Taft stepped down from the Supreme Court in February 1930 for health reasons, and he died a month later.

While serving as Chief Justice Taft also successfully persuaded Congress to allocate funds for the Supreme Court to have its own building, as up until this time the justices had been meeting in the basement of the Capitol. Taft selected Cass Gilbert as architect for the building. It was completed in 1935, five years after Taft’s death.

U.S. Supreme Court Building William Howard Taft
The Supreme Court Building of the United States. Photo by Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16959908

 

Taft’s career and his many significant contributions to our nation are summarized in the short and concise “William Howard Taft” by Jeffrey Rosen, part of the American Presidents Series. According to the author, President Taft protected more land and was more successful in breaking up trusts and monopolies than his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. And as Chief Justice, the author says, Taft’s greatest accomplishment was to solidify the federal judiciary as a coequal branch of government.

Here are some additional facts about William Howard Taft:

  • He was one of many presidents to hail from Ohio. Others included Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley and Harding.
  • His wife, Helen, who went by “Nellie,” suffered a stroke when he was President.
  • As mentioned, Taft was heavy. He gained and lost weight over the years. According to the book, he was at his heaviest — and his unhappiest — during his presidency.
  • His heroes were George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall (fourth Chief Justice of the United States).
  • President Taft appointed six justices to the Supreme Court, the most of any president except George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt! He would later serve alongside some of the justices he had appointed.

In addition to being responsible for the construction of the United States Supreme Court Building, Taft was also president of the Lincoln Memorial Commission and presided over the monument’s dedication in 1922. Taft also had the first Oval Office built in the West Wing of the White House. And we can also thank Taft for the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., as first lady Nellie Taft planted the very first cherry blossom trees, which were a gift from Japan.

cherry blossoms in Washington DC
Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., USDA photo by Scott Bauer – United States Department of Agriculture, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44873

Theodore Roosevelt’s South American adventure

Before moving on to Taft, here’s another book about Teddy. This one is about his perilous journey with a group of explorers down an unmapped river in Brazil. “River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” takes place in 1913, a year after the bespectacled former president had lost his insurgent third-party run for what would have been an unprecedented third term.

Fred Michmershuizen

 

Roosevelt teamed up with a number of naturalists and explorers for a trip that lasted several months, through an unknown section of the Brazilian rainforest. Roosevelt’s second oldest son, Kermit, was part of the expedition. Along the way, there were many hardships. It took the men more than a month just to get to the river, and once they got started downstream in their canoes they were not exactly sure where they were going. They were hoping to eventually reach the Amazon. Once on the River of Doubt — that was the name of the river, but it was later renamed after Roosevelt himself — there were dangerous fish and snakes. Food was scarce, and the mosquitoes, ants and termites made everyone miserable. When rapids or waterfalls made navigating the river impossible, they had to portage all their supplies around the obstacles, causing excruciating delays that often took many extra days.

At one point before a difficult portage one of the men was swept down the river to his death, in an incident that was Kermit’s fault. Later another of the men committed murder by shooting one of his compatriots, then vanishing into the forest. Roosevelt himself came close to death after succumbing to an infection resulting from cutting his leg on a rock.

The co-leader of the expedition was a legendary native Brazilian explorer named Colonel Candido Rondon, who had dedicated his life to mapping the Amazon and who was a fierce defender of the native Indians. He had famously instructed his men who might encounter the Indians, “Die if you must, but never kill.”

This book is by Candice Millard, who is also author of a similarly gripping book called “Destiny of the Republic,” about the assassination of President James Garfield. “River of Doubt” is skimpy on maps but has plenty of helpful pictures. For me, the most interesting sections were Millard’s descriptions of the animal and plant life of the Amazon rain forests. She describes how South America was formed over millions of years and how living things evolved by carving out specialized niches. She also describes the various native Indian tribes, who were largely unseen. They could have killed the intruders at any time but chose not to.

Theodore Roosevelt pointing towards the area explored during the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition. (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Update on reading biographies of all the presidents

Here’s an update on the goal of reading at least one biography of each president, in order. It all started in 2017 with George Washington, and the most recent is a three-volume series on Theodore Roosevelt.

Biographies of Presidents Washington through Theodore Roosevelt are on the shelf. Some of the biographies are longer than others — and not all the books I’ve read are shown here!

Three recently completed books on Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris cover his early years, his presidency and his post-presidency, respectively.

Fred Michmershuizen presidenttial biographies

The top row (those serving from 1789 to 1877) are Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Grant.

The bottom row on the bookshelf of presidents (in the featured image above) includes biographies of those who served as president from 1877 through 1909. From left: Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

The post-presidency of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909 and lived another 10 years. It was a momentous decade for the former President, as well as for the nation and for the world. Today’s book report is about “Colonel Roosevelt,” the third and final installment in an excellent, three-volume biography by Edmund Morris. After I write about the events described in the book, I am going to make two general observations and then share a personal reflection. But first, here’s what I learned about the third and final phase of Theodore Roosevelt’s life:

review of “Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund MorrisImmediately after leaving office Roosevelt departed for a hunting safari in Africa, followed by a grand tour of Europe in which he visited several major cities and gave scholarly speeches at universities. On the safari Roosevelt was accompanied by a large hunting expedition that included his second oldest son, Kermit. They covered many hundreds of miles and shot so much wildlife that it was considered excessive even back then. He killed hundreds of animals, including lions, elephants, zebras, antelope, giraffes, hippos and rhinos.

The trip lasted more than a year. While Roosevelt was still overseas King Edward VII of England died, and President Taft asked Theodore Roosevelt to represent the United States at the funeral. It was a momentous occasion in which the crowned heads gathered for the last time before World War I changed everything. At the time, the United States and France were the only countries that did not have royalty. During the events leading up to and after the funeral, which was the most elaborate event anyone could remember, Roosevelt met with pretty much all the various emperors, kings and queens of Europe — and for the rest of his life he would regale listeners with funny stories of what he would jokingly refer to as “the wake.”

By the time Roosevelt returned to the United States in 1910 he was perceived as an elder statesman (he was in his early 50s) and was greeted by large crowds of supporters. He received a ticker tape parade in New York City. He had been displeased with his anointed successor’s conduct in office and had an eye on running for President again. But by this time President William Howard Taft had strengthened himself within the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Roosevelt decided to challenge Taft for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1912. At the convention that summer in Chicago, Roosevelt came close but lost the nomination to the incumbent president. When Roosevelt was defeated for the nomination, he did not accept defeat graciously but instead claimed that Taft’s men had “stolen” the nomination from him (tell me if this sounds familiar?) and he allowed his own supporters to literally storm out of the convention and form a third political party, the Progressive Party, which later became known as the Bull Moose Party.

As head of the Bull Moosers, Roosevelt campaigned extensively on a third-party platform of government oversight of big business, the breaking up of trusts and monopolies, the enactment of child labor laws, primary elections for party nominations and statewide elections for the selection of senators, and women’s suffrage. He also supported (unwisely) recall elections for judges and unpopular judicial decisions.

Toward the end of the campaign, while on his way to give a speech in Milwaukee, Theodore Roosevelt was shot! The would-be assassin was angered that someone would try for an unprecedented third term in office and decided to take matters into his own hands. The bullet went through Roosevelt’s folded-up speech and his eyeglasses case and lodged in his chest. But instead of going immediately to the hospital, as he should have, Roosevelt instead insisted that he be taken to the campaign rally, where he delivered his speech as scheduled, with blood seeping into his shirt. When he was finally taken to the hospital, later that night, doctors determined that it was too dangerous to remove the bullet, and Roosevelt walked around with it inside his body for the rest of his life.

The assassination attempt took place just weeks before the general election. Roosevelt came in second, losing to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, who was New Jersey Governor and former president of Princeton University. Wilson had campaigned on a similarly progressive but much less radical platform than Roosevelt’s. Wilson received 42 percent of the popular vote, while Roosevelt got 27 percent and Taft 23 percent. In the Electoral College, it was a landslide for Wilson, who received 435 electoral votes, to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8. After the election Roosevelt became something of a pariah among Republicans, because he opened a giant rift in the party that would take many years to heal. It was many years before Roosevelt and Taft would again be on speaking terms with each other.

In 1913 Roosevelt embarked on a tour of South America. He visited Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, then back to Brazil. The purpose of the trip was a scientific expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, in which Roosevelt and his team of scientists and adventurers were to collect specimens. But before embarking on the predetermined itinerary, Roosevelt decided he wanted to do something more challenging. So he teamed up with a Brazilian explorer to travel down a then-unmapped river located in a remote section of Brazil. Kermit also was part of the expedition. The river was known as the Duvida, or River of Doubt. It would later be named after Roosevelt. It turned out to be a perilous and deadly journey. It took months for the expedition to even reach the river, it was that remote. The waters were filled with piranhas, and the jungle was inhabited by hostile natives who shot poisoned arrows. Many times they had to carry their boats over long stretches where the rapids were too rough to navigate, and there were many hardships. They lost their boats and had to carve canoes out of logs. There was a drowning and a murder among the crew. At one point Roosevelt injured his leg and was stricken with malaria, and he almost died. When he returned to the United States he published a book about the expedition, and he also presented lectures.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, at first Roosevelt was careful not to criticize President Wilson but that did not last. Roosevelt thought that Wilson had not responded forcefully enough when Germany invaded Belgium, and his exasperation grew even more after the sinking of the Lusitania. He also felt that Wilson had not engaged in “preparedness” for war. When the United States finally entered the global conflict in 1917, Roosevelt asked Wilson and his secretary of war to grant him permission to raise a volunteer regiment. Wisely and correctly, Wilson denied Roosevelt’s request. The United States was instituting a draft and was amassing a modern, professional military. While Roosevelt was not able to serve as he so desperately wanted, all four of his sons enlisted in the war in various capacities. Sadly, in 1918 Roosevelt lost his youngest son, Quentin, a fighter pilot, who was shot down by German forces.

Theodore Roosevelt died in January 1919, shortly after World War I ended, at Sagamore Hill on the north shore of Long Island. Today the home is a national historic site, open to the public.

Here are a few more notes about Theodore Roosevelt:

  • After Roosevelt left office his pen was his primary source of income. He wrote books, magazine articles and newspaper columns on a wide range of topics.
  • Roosevelt was involved in two high-profile libel lawsuits that were decided by jury trials, one in which he was the plaintiff and one in which he was the defendant. He won both cases.
  • Theodore Roosevelt had six children in all. His eldest was a daughter, Alice, named after his first wife, who died. Roosevelt had five more children with his second wife, Edith Kermit Carow. They were Theodore Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archie and Quentin.
  • Theodore Jr. married an Eleanor — not to be confused with Roosevelt’s own niece Eleanor, who married his distant cousin Franklin!
  • The title of the book, “Colonel Roosevelt,” is so named because that is the way the former President was addressed after he left office. It was in recognition of the former president’s service in Cuba as leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.

As presidential biographies go, I thoroughly enjoyed all three of the volumes by Edmund Morris. My favorite of the trilogy was the first book, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” but all three were page-turners, complete with helpful maps and photographs. I felt that the author did a good job of presenting his subject as a complete human, with not only his triumphs getting attention but also his many faults and contradictions. One of the best things presented by Morris, in my view, is an epilogue to the final book, in which he describes all of the major biographies written about Theodore Roosevelt since his death and how these works influenced the general public’s perception of our nation’s 26th President over the decades.

Three volumes on Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Now for my two general observations. First is that presidential assassinations at this time had, sadly, become rather frequent. There is not one American alive today who has lived through the assassination of more than one president, and many more who were not alive for even one. But at the time Theodore Roosevelt was alive, many Americans had experienced three! Theodore Roosevelt was six years old when Lincoln was killed in 1865 (he and his brother had watched Lincoln’s funeral procession through Manhattan from a window), he was in his early 20s when Garfield was killed in 1881, and then he was vice president in 1901 when McKinley was killed and he became president. In Europe, there were additional assassinations, including that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose killing in 1914 sparked the onset of war, and then the execution in 1918 of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II and his family as part of the Russian Revolution. So when Theodore Roosevelt was shot while campaigning for president in 1912, it must have been sad but not completely shocking.

My second observation is about the makeup of the American voting public. Up until this time, it had been all men. Mostly all white men at that. Theodore Roosevelt lived until 1919, but women were not allowed to vote until 1920! Think about that. Theodore Roosevelt was our nation’s 26th President, and he lived to see a 27th and a 28th elected. Yet each and every one of them was elected by men only. We are currently on our 45th President, so in all of our nation’s history women have been allowed to vote for less than half of our presidents. And if you combine that with the fact that in large parts of our country African-Americans did not get the right to vote until the 1960s, one thing is quite evident if you ask me: White male privilege is definitely a thing, and it’s been practically ingrained in our history!

And finally, I want to share a personal reflection, upon having read about the first century and a half (approximately) of our nation’s history, via these presidential biographies. I am grateful to have been born at a time in which going off to war was not expected of me. I’ve now read about the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and now World War I. Still to come will be World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I am so very glad that I was not a young man for any of these wars, and that we no longer have compulsory military service for the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not getting killed in war is something I am most grateful for.

The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt

“Speak softly and carry a big stick” is one of many Theodore Roosevelt-isms that became part of the American vernacular. The way he saw things, the best way to keep our country out of war was to build up military strength, particularly naval forces. Theodore Roosevelt was a naval historian and had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. As president he added lots of warships to the U.S. fleet. He used this strength on the seas to help enforce the Monroe Doctrine, the longstanding U.S. policy that had been articulated by our fifth president, which said in essence that European powers had no business meddling in the affairs of the Americas.

When a dispute over unpaid debts owed by Venezuela caused England and Germany to set up a blockade, Theodore Roosevelt added his own twist to the Monroe Doctrine, what became known as the “Roosevelt Corollary.” Now, the United States would itself intervene in affairs of Latin American countries, to enforce legitimate claims by Europeans and to keep European forces out. This new policy kept Germany out of Venezuela, and it was used as justification for our own country’s intervention in what would become the country of Panama, which had been part of Colombia.

Oh, and one more thing: The often-overlooked “speak softly” part of the phrase was key to the equation, too. Theodore Roosevelt believed in subtle diplomacy. He did not want to antagonize or humiliate foreign powers or their leaders, especially the Kaiser of Germany or the Tsar of Russia. When Japan waged war against Russia, Theodore Roosevelt helped negotiate a peace settlement, which he did largely in secret.

Another Roosevelt-ism was the “Square Deal,” which was a phrase he used in calling both sides of a nasty coal miners strike to Washington to negotiate. Roosevelt was not necessarily on the side of the workers over management, but he did want them to have the right to bargain for better wages and working conditions. Roosevelt also sought to rein in the power of large market-stifling trusts, especially those controlling the nation’s railroads. He felt that big business was getting too large and powerful, and he wanted reasonable government oversight.

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris book reviewAlso during this time Upton Sinclair wrote his famous book, “The Jungle,” which exposed unsanitary conditions in the nation’s meat processing plants. Theodore Roosevelt wanted federal legislation to bring in inspectors. He also called for worker protections, including an eight-hour workday.

One other famous phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt, still used today, is that the presidency gives the officeholder a “bully pulpit.” But interestingly, the phrase might not have meant to Roosevelt what it means to modern ears. That’s because the word “bully” back then meant “nifty.” But Theodore Roosevelt could also be a bully, especially to get what he wanted. He knew how to pull all the levers of power to get more warships added to the budget, to get the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection acts passed — and to get that long-anticipated canal built through Central America! The Panama Canal was not finished during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, but he got it started. (Never mind if some strings had to be pulled behind the scenes to facilitate Panama declaring independence from Colombia.) He visited the construction zone in person before he left office.

Theodore Roosevelt’s biggest legacy of all, though, was the conservation of our nation’s national resources. In creating more than 20 new national monuments and parks, he preserved 230 million acres of forests, lakes and canyons — including the Grand Canyon itself! Toward the end of his presidency, he summoned the governors of all states to Washington for a conservation conference.

Here are some additional facts about Theodore Roosevelt:

  • He’s on Mount Rushmore! Along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, of course.
  • He was a voracious reader.
  • He traveled extensively as President.
  • He was physically active. He engaged in swimming, tennis, hiking, horseback riding and hunting.
  • His home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, became known as his “Summer White House.”
  • One his first acts as president was to have Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner. This caused a huge uproar from both north and south. Sadly, the country just was not ready for such a gesture.
  • Perhaps one of his most egregious acts as President was to unfairly discharge a contingent of black soldiers who had been stationed in Brownsville, Texas, after they had been wrongly accused of attacking locals.
  • Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of his mediation between Japan and Russia. Apparently the committee overlooked all those new warships Roosevelt had built! Toward the end of his presidency, in a bellicose display, Theodore Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet” on a grand voyage around the world.
  • More than once during his presidency there was financial panic. There was a problem with the nation’s money supply, and big financiers like J.P. Morgan stepped in to avert catastrophe.
  • Because of his spectacles and his prominent front teeth, Theodore Roosevelt was easily caricatured.
  • The Teddy bear was invented during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency and is named after him!
  • During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt participated in two significant weddings. His eldest daughter, Alice, married a congressman in a ceremony that took place in the White House. And he gave away his niece Eleanor Roosevelt, in her wedding to his distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a ceremony that took place in New York City.

Theodore Roosevelt became our 26th president in September 1901, taking office after the assassination of William McKinley. He was a Republican from New York. In 1904 he defeated Democrat Alton B. Parker, also of New York, to win a full term in his own right. By 1908 he was at the height of his powers, but he decided not to seek another term. He instead threw his support to William Howard Taft, assuming his designated successor would carry on just the way he wanted him to.

“Theodore Rex” is the second in a three-volume biography by Edmund Morris. This book covers his presidency. The title derives from a quote from the novelist Henry James, who noted that the president had become something of an autocrat. I enjoyed “Theodore Rex” and thought it was very well written and certainly very comprehensive. But with all the names and places to remember it was a bit more challenging for me to get through than the first book in the series, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”

I’ve since moved on to the third and final installment by Morris, “Colonel Roosevelt,” which takes place after the spectacled one leaves office. That will be a book report for another day.

Theodore Rooevelt book review by Fred Michmershuizen
Official White House portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent, 1903 (public domain).